COLUMBIA — An old feeling of frustration bubbled within Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine, a reminder of a wound that hasn’t yet closed.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Indeed, it’s been a calendar year since Missouri’s season ended against LSU in the NCAA Super-Regional round. But if you think the blow has been softened by a fourth consecutive trip to the same round — the Tigers play host to Washington in a best-of-three series starting tonight at University Field — you’d be dead wrong.
“It just won’t go away,” Earleywine said of last year’s 2-1 series loss to LSU, which advanced to the Women’s College World Series. “Some of it went away when we best LSU at their place during the regular season, but the rest of the bite is still there. It was just a horrible feeling for all of us.”
Senior Nicole Hudson agreed, adding that this year’s seniors have not forgotten what it was like to watch the season end in front of their home fans.
“I think it still has a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth,” Hudson said. “You never want to end your season with a loss at home … we’re not looking to go through that again.”
Leading that charge, apparently, will be senior star Chelsea Thomas, who has been battling numbness and tingling in her pitching arm after periods of heavy use. MU doctors believe her condition is exertional compartment syndrome, but she expects to take the ball for game one, which starts at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
“It’s Chelsea Thomas all the way,” Earleywine said with a grin. “And no hidden agendas this time.”
Earleywine was far from forthright regarding the status of Thomas during the NCAA regional last week, playing coy about her pitching status and his plan for using her. He wound up pitching Thomas on back-to-back days Saturday and Sunday, and she responded with two victories against Hofstra that helped the Tigers advance in the double-elimination tournament.
Thomas, who tossed a complete-game, one-hit shutout on Sunday just one day after allowing an uncharacteristic eight hits, said she now feels confident she can again pitch on back-to-back days, though she stopped short of saying she was completely symptom-free.
“There was some fullness, a little bit of numbness, but nothing like it has been,” Thomas said.
That said, it also seems likely that Thomas will be called on to pitch Friday, which could turn into a doubleheader if Missouri and Washington split the first two games of the series. Thomas said she will be ready if needed.
“You know what … when your back is against the wall and you’re fighting for your season, you never know what you can do,” Thomas said.
Of course, while Thomas’ health will clearly play a huge role in whatever happens in the series, Hudson pointed out that it’s up to her teammates to make her life a bit easier.
“The most important thing is if we can score runs, it takes that pressure off her,” Hudson said.
That, however, could prove to be easier said than done for Missouri, 38-12. Washington, 41-15, is led by junior pitcher Kaitlin Ingelsby, who has a 1.92 ERA in 36 appearances and teams with junior Bryana Walker.
“They have two good pitchers with two different looks,” Earleywine said. “Ingelsby has good velocity, upper 60s, and a really good drop ball. Walker has a good rise ball and less velocity. That’s tough making that adjustment because not only do you go from down to up, you go from 68 (mph) to 63 (mph).”
Missouri has beaten Ingelsby in this round before — the Tigers swept the Huskies in 2011 when she was a freshman.
“If we want to win the game as much as Washington, I think we’ll win,” Earleywine said. “If Washington wants to win the game more than us, I think Washington will win.
“The fact of the matter is, Washington is going to come in here on Thursday trying to beat our head off of us.”